Published: January 7, 2003
LOS ANGELES, CALIF. – The West Coast’s first comprehensive exhibition of works by John Singer Sargent opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) on February 2.
“” explores the unique relationship between one of the best known American artists and Italy, the country of his birth. The extraordinary exhibition, which complements important works by Sargent in LACMA’s permanent collection, consists of more than 75 paintings that gives audiences an understanding of the enduring significance of Italy to Sargent. The works will remain on view through May 11.
Sargent is most famous for his grand manner portraits that epitomize the elegance and glamour of international high society at the end of the Nineteenth Century. But he began his career in the late 1870s and early 1880s painting the island of Capri and the hidden byways of Venice. Between 1897 and 1914, Sargent traveled to Italy every year to paint his favorite subjects.
John Singer Sargent was born in Florence in 1856 to expatriate American parents. The Sargents traveled through Europe incessantly in pursuit of culture, returning most frequently to Italy – an older country charged with classical culture, but also warm and sensual. Land of the Renaissance, of the Medici, of Leonardo and Michelangelo, Italy was also a land of color, or uninhibited emotion and extravagance; shards of sensation that feed the imagination of a visual artist. By the age of 12, Sargent was sketching the artistic and scenic wonders of Italy. He received his first systematic art instruction in Florence but left in 1874 for training that one could obtain then only in Paris. In 1878 he made his first visit to the United States, where he claimed his American citizenship, and then embarked on his first professional painting trip to Italy.
Sargent sought new subject matter in the peasant life of Naples and Capri. “Head of a Capri Girl,” 1878, is one of Sargent’s first major Italian works and one of the most significant of his early views of Venice. The painting exemplifies Sargent’s attraction to the lesser-known parts and people of Venice and his interest in realistically depicting the gritty physical details of the Venetian environment. But in Paris, portraits were driving Sargent’s career. With the exception on one subsequent visit, Sargent did not return to Italy until he had established himself as the leading portrait painting in the English-speaking world.
In 1897, he came back to Italy. By now he had received a prestigious commission for a mural at the Boston Public Library, and his career had ascended in a perfect trajectory from genre painter to society portrait painter to history painter and muralist. The following year, Sargent was again in Venice, where he painted Mrs Ralph Curtis. “Mrs Ralph Curtis,” 1898, not only represents the enticing glamour of some of Sargent’s most privileged clients and friends – Mrs Curtis was the wife of his wealthy cousin whose family lived in the elaborate Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal – but also is the only full-length formal portrait Sargent painted in Italy.
Of all the places in Italy Sargent traveled, Venice had perhaps the largest share of his attention. The city fascinated Sargent and was well suited to the watercolor medium in which he worked most often in Italy. His use of vivid colors, brushwork that varied from soft and fluid, to bold and dashing, and an overwhelming sense of light and air characterize his Italian scenes like “Scuola di San Rocco,” 1903, and rank Sargent as one of the finest watercolorists of all time.
Sargent always cast a fresh eye on the regular tourist subject. In Venice, where the city’s quintessential sight is of domes and towers melting into the light, Sargent looked at doors and foundations. He generally leaves enough detail for viewers to identify the building – but only for someone truly knowledgeable of Venice. His are never tourist views, a remarkable achievement in a city processed by artists for the tourist market for 200 years.
Each summer Sargent returned to Italy where he painted landscapes, genre scenes and portraits. In Italy, Sargent was at home. His landscapes are populated mainly by family and friends. He makes visible the vital hold that Italy had on all American visitors – not simply the abstract ideal of history, but rather the realm of the sensual, the special qualities of light, the attention to uncomplicated pleasures of the table, the balmy air. The Italian locales Sargent found himself drawn to were never exactly those in the guidebooks. At Lake Garda, he found a small fishing village, San Vigilio, on the unfashionable side of the lake; in Florence he avoided the Pitti Palace and instead painted the Boboli Gardens behind it; in the Alps, he stepped well off the beaten track.
At the very edge of Italy, high in the Alps, Sargent posed the young men and women among his family and friends in exotic costumes, toying with the conventions of both portraiture and exoticism. These are perhaps his most extraordinary and daring works, short of his virtually abstract landscape paintings. “Dolce Far Niente,” circa 1907, is one of the greatest examples of Sargent’s interest in exotic themes. The cashmere shawl seen in “Women Reclining,” 1911, was the luxurious Eastern garment Sargent most frequently used to costume his female relatives so that he might study the shawl’s remarkable drape, folds and patterns and especially the female figure in repose.
Sargent’s Italian landscapes generally evoke the world of people, a social and sensual matrix. Even when the scene is devoid of figures and almost abstract, he captures a world of sensation as it is registered not just by the eyes, but by the body as a whole: light as warmth, color as taste and texture. This is one reason why Italy is such a responsive subject, enhancing all of Sargent’s best qualities – and the reason why Italy remained a part of Sargent from the moment of his birth.
“” will begin with Sargent’s works from Capri and Venice and then present works from the Alps, including his well-known cashmere series. Visitors will then view works created in Carrara and San Vigilio, watercolors and oils depicting gardens in Tuscany and Rome, as well as paintings of art and architecture. There is then a return to works created in Venice and the exhibition closes with portraits created while the artist was vacationing in Italy.
“” is accompanied by an edited color catalog and with an introduction by LACMA curator Bruce Robertson, with essays by Jane Dini, Ilene Susan Fort, Stephanie L. Herdrich, R.W.B. Lewis and Richard Ormond.
This exhibition was organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Ferrara Art. The tour schedule following LACMA includes the Denver Art Museum, June 28 through September 21.
“” is a specially ticketed exhibition. Price of admission includes entrance to the exhibition “Ansel Adams at 100.” Adult ticket prices range from $10 to $15 and go on sale in January. For information 323-857-6000, or visit www.lacma.org.
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